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Syrian Opposition Chief Presses Russia To Change Stance

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (facing camera) meets Syrian National Council representatives at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow on July 11.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (facing camera) meets Syrian National Council representatives at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow on July 11.

The head of Syria's main exiled opposition coalition has met with Russia's foreign minister in a bid to encourage Moscow to curtail its backing for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian National Council chief Abdel Basset Sayda told Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during talks in Moscow on July 11 that Syria is in the throes of a "revolution" and there is no prospect of a political transition.

Sayda drew a parallel with the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, saying the conflict in Syria is not simply a matter of "disagreements between the opposition and the government."

The Syrian National Council is based in Turkey and openly backed by Western and Arab states that have called for Assad to step down.

'Prospects For Unified Opposition'

In his remarks, Lavrov gave no indication that Moscow was ready to start supporting the opposition. Russia has repeatedly said that the crisis must be resolved by Syrians themselves, without outside interference.

Lavrov instead said he wanted to know if the fragmented opposition would be able to unite into one movement in order to negotiate with the government in line with the peace plan proposed by international envoy Kofi Annan.

"We are very interested in your assessments of the situation within the opposition movement -- the Syrian National Council's relations with other groups of the external opposition and, especially, of the internal opposition," Lavrov said, "in order to understand what the prospects are, and how reliable the prospects are, for the unification of all opposition groups on a platform of dialogue with the government, as envisaged by Kofi Annan's plan that was approved by the United Nations Security Council."

After the Moscow meeting, a representative of the Syria National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, said Lavrov indicated that Russia would not shift its position.

Meanwhile, a Russian arms-export official said on July 11 that Moscow would fulfill a contract to deliver air-defense systems to Syria despite growing pressure from the West to halt such exports.

Vyacheslav Dzirkaln said that pending deliveries to Syria were related to "old contracts" signed before 2008. He added, however, that Moscow had no plans to sign new weapons contracts with Damascus.

Last month, Russia tried sending a cargo ship to Syria with three repaired helicopters for government forces. But the vessel failed to make the delivery after the mission was exposed by Washington and a British insurer dropped its coverage.

On July 10, 11 Russian warships left their home ports for Mediterranean exercises that include stopovers at the Syrian port of Tartus, where Moscow operates its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union.

Security Council Standoff

Meanwhile, Russia has circulated among the other states on the United Nations Security Council a draft resolution suggesting an extension of the United Nations monitoring mission in Syria for a further three months. Diplomats say the draft would not threaten any new measures against the regime.

The Security Council must decide on the future of the mission before July 20, when its initial 90-day mandate expires.

The 300-member team was sent to Syria in April to monitor a planned cease-fire, which has never been implemented by the government or opposition fighters. The monitors recently were forced to curb their observer mission because of safety threats linked to the conflict.

On July 4, international mediator Annan was expected to brief the Security Council on the outcome of the discussions he held this week with top officials in Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

The British-based pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 17, 000 people -- mostly civilians, but also members of the security forces -- have been killed since the conflict began in March, 2011. The figures provided by the group cannot be independently verified.

With reporting by AFP, Interfax, and dpa

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